Why do people behave the way they do? What motivates them? Lawrence Kohlberg (1958) studied children of various ages and discovered distinct stages of reasoning involved in decision making. He further categorized them into three levels, with two stages in each level. “Six Stages of Moral Development” has become a standard for behavior assessment.
Rafe Esquith, a fifth grade teacher at an inner city school in Los Angeles, popularized Kohlberg’s Six Levels in his book, Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire. His goal is for each student in his classroom to develop to the sixth level, and they often do. View the list to read Kolhberg’s six principles, simplified by Esquith. These essentially are the different stages of reasoning that children should develop (not many progress to the sixth level) in order to have the best possible motivation for their choices, which determines behavior. See if you agree that a seventh level should be added.
Yes, it involves the Bible. But the Bible is not about a list of rules—it is about a relationship with the true and living God who created us, loves us, and provided redemption from sin so we can live with Him forever.
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Level 1 is I Don’t Want to Get in Trouble.
Reasoning and behavior is based on fear of consequences from the authority figure. The motivation for obedience is to avoid being punished. The danger is that the child will comply externally without proper self-motivation. His actions may be correct, but his character may be corrupt.
Level 2 is I Want a Reward.
Reasoning and behavior is based on the authority figure’s standards and expectations. The child will obey to get what he wants—some kind of reward. The motivation is like a trade-off. The danger is that the child will not behave if a reward is not offered. Thus he still has no self-motivation and no awareness that good behavior has its own rewards.
Level 3 is I Want to Please Somebody.
Reasoning and behavior is determined by what makes the authority figure happy. The reward is approval and maintaining a good relationship with the parent or teacher. The danger is that good behavior will not be maintained in the absence of the authority. We must do good things, for example brush our teeth, because it’s right, not because someone wants us to.
Level 4 is I Follow the Rules.
The child’s reasoning and behavior is now based on his awareness of a body of rules that the group or community follows. Good behavior means compliance and fulfilling duties. This is an acceptable motivation if the rules are right and lead to the common good. The danger is that rules can be wrong (for example killing babies or religious martyrdom). Also rules can stifle creativity or cause arrogance when one compares himself with others
Level 5 is I am Considerate of Other People.
In Esquith’s opinion, very few children or adults reach this stage of reasoning and behavior. It involves putting oneself in the other person’s shoes, giving up personal rights, and putting others ahead of oneself. This requires empathy, and it is biblical. However, the issues are not always clear cut. For example, would you steal food from someone who had plenty and refused to share, if there was a national disaster and you had nothing to eat? This level has no dangers, but there are still higher motivations for moral behavior.
Level 6 is I Have a Personal Code of Behavior and I Follow it.
Behavior is based on one’s own conscience and the personal satisfaction of doing what is right, not on any external rewards or punishments. Even in the face of negative consequences, this person behaves with integrity because his moral code is based on universal principles found in Levels 4 and 5. Esquith points to Atticus Finch (To Kill A Mockingbird) as a character who achieved Level 6. Another example is the neurosurgeon in Ian McEwan’s novel, Saturday, who performed life-saving brain surgery on the man who had terrorized and threatened to kill his family, even though that man had a terminal illness.
Level 7 would be I Love God and Follow His Moral Code, found in the Bible.
Jesus summarized all of God’s written revelation by saying, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind….and love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40). This is God’s moral code. If we love Him, we will strive to avoid sinning. If we love others as ourselves, we will help and not harm our fellow humans.
What is the motivation for this kind of successful living? No negative consequences. It is rewarding. It pleases God and upholds His principles. It considers other’s needs as more important than our own, and it embodies personal integrity. In other words, it takes all six of Kohlber’s stages to a higher level. Level 7 means living for eternity not earth. Earthly rewards and man’s praise mean nothing in light of eternal values. The only danger is pride. Feeling superior to others who do not live this way or even condemning them in one’s mind. However, because pride is an abomination to God, a Level 7 person would seek to avoid this grievous sin.